March 21, 2008 — Jim Skove spent 25 years at the CIA working with people all over the world. Stationed at various times in Frankfurt and Berlin, then in Vienna and Salsburg, and finally in Stockholm, Skove saw many different people and cultures. When he retired from his traveling, meeting with powerful figures, and "taking lots of people out to lunch," he had to decide what to do with all this newfound free time.
He came up with two answers: Settle down in Charlottesville and go back to the University of Virginia, where he had earned his master's degree in urban planning.
"Traveling around is a lot of fun for me, but it's not all that fun for my wife," said Skove, now 82. "So we said, OK, we'll make one last overseas tour. We came back, and made a couple of trips around the country, and I was thinking, 'What can I do with my time? I know, I'll go back to school.'"
Since then, he has moved to Charlottesville and become one of U.Va.'s busiest Community Scholars. The program, administered by the School of Continuing and Professional Studies, allows senior citizens in the surrounding area to take up to two courses per semester, free of charge without course credit, with the permission of the instructor. Skove has taken eight courses since 2002.
Charlottesville and U.Va proved to be a perfect fit for the Skoves. "For a city this size — it's not all that big, it's a good size — there are an awful lot of cultural advantages and things to do. There's the opportunity to take courses here, there's the theater, there's just a lot to do."
A significant portion of Skove's service in the CIA occurred during the height of Stalin-era Russia and the Cold War, and getting into Russia was next to impossible. "All the time, I was outside Russia looking in. Part of my business was to figure out what was going on, to talk to diplomats." The mystery got to be so much to Skove that when the Soviet Union collapsed "The idea of getting inside … was irresistible to me. I've probably been there 10 or 11 times since then."
At U.Va., Skove found the perfect venue to satisfy his craving for knowledge about the language and culture of the country so long shrouded in mystery. "I called Professor Karen Ryan [now interim dean of the College of Arts & Sciences] and said, 'I have this Russian background, what can I do with it?' She said, ‘I'm teaching a course this semester on contemporary Russian literature. You should come join us.'"
Skove entered the class with rusty Russian language skills and gray hair, worried what the other students would think. "I thought I was going to be an odd duck. At that time, I was almost 80, and since it was a graduate course, most of the students were in their early 20s. I thought they'd resent this old guy being here, but it was nothing of the sort. I got a lot of 'Hi, Jim, how're you doing? How did you do on the assignment?' That sort of thing."
One good experience led to another, and Skove continued to take classes at the University. Having experienced classes from Russian 101 to a Medieval Russian Literature class that he took with four other students, Skove has loved every minute of his renewed academic career. "Everybody's been very nice. I was worried people would think I was stealing their thunder, but that's not the case at all. It's the complete opposite."
Others echoed similar sentiment. Margarita Nafpaktitis, an assistant professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, had Skove in her Introduction to Polish class in the 2004-05 school year. In talking about Skove, she had only fond, and often hilarious, memories. She recalled one day in class, when the class went around and offered three adjectives about themselves as an exercise in adjective use. "When it was Jim's turn, all he said was 'I'm old.' That was his only one. Then all the other students started giving him adjectives — 'You're wonderful,' 'You're smart' — until he had about nine adjectives for himself."
Skove, despite being more than a bit older than the average student in the Introduction to Polish class, which Nafpaktitis described as "pretty much all first- and second-years," quickly became a part of the class. "He never tried to act like a college student. One of the great things about him is how equally charming and polite he is to everyone. I mean, Jim stayed Jim. Because he was so willing to be a part of the class, and the students were so willing to be part of it with him, by about the third class, Jim was Jim along with everyone else. … He was just game for everything."
Skove's continuing desire for education was inspiring to fellow students and professors alike, including Nafpaktitis. "The fact that he is genuinely interested in keeping up the fascination he has had with Slavic culture over the last almost half-century is just fantastic."
Even if he won't get a degree, Skove has taken a full course load over the past few years. "I took Polish, two courses in [Russian] literature, one graduate course in Russian, two conversational courses, and these two art courses," he said. The art courses include the class in which Skove is currently enrolled, a 400-level graduate Russian art course.
Skove's grasp of all things Russian remains impressive, but he praises the U.Va professors for their knowledge and ability beyond his own. "I suppose I could study enough to teach Russian 101 or 102, but my pronunciation isn't all that good. There's one native Russian professor, Lilia Travisano, and she's the most patient person. … She teaches these courses essentially for people who need to build up their conversational abilities. I took the course twice, and she's very good. How anyone could be that patient is just amazing."
Skove said he plans to continue taking classes as long as his health holds. He remains motivated and truly enjoys learning new cultures and languages. His interest comes from both his time in the CIA, and the advice of one person in it. "I took this language test [in the CIA], and they said, 'Don't even try to learn a language. It's hopeless.'
"There's nothing to make you want to do something like to be told you can't do it."
In the 2007-08 academic year, participants in the University's Community Scholar program have taken over 500 classes at U.Va. For more on the program, visit www.scps.virginia.edu/communityscholar/.